Student Veteran lends his voice and story

Messenger: A dubious statistic highlights need for economic diversity at WashU

Ed Tjaden had his first kid at the age of 19.

He was a student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

“I was not a motivated student,” Tjaden says.

Tjaden dropped out of school.

He and his girlfriend, Ginny, got married. They were high school sweethearts from Central High School in Camp Point, Ill. It’s a town of about 1,100 just east of Quincy.

In 2007, he enlisted in the Army. During his seven-year hitch, he was deployed in Iraq for 15 months.

These days, Tjaden’s existence is far removed from those small town beginnings.

In a year, he’ll graduate with a law degree from Washington University School of Law.

When he applied at Washington University, he didn’t know much about the school. But it was the highest rated law school that accepted him after he graduated with a political science degree from Eastern Illinois — he went there for the free books.

“I didn’t realize what I was getting into,” he says of Washington U. “I just looked at the rankings and picked the school.”

Tjaden ended up being on the other side of a dubious statistic.

A comprehensive study published this month by the Equality of Opportunity Project found that Washington U. led the nation in the economic disparity of its students in the latest year it analyzed, which would have been the class of 2013. In that year, 21 percent of the students at Washington U. came from the top 1 percent, or homes with incomes of $650,000 or higher. Only 6 percent of students at the university came from the bottom 60 percent of the nation, economically.

There is a value, Tjaden says, for elite universities like Washington U. to do a better job making sure more of its student body has a background more like his.

“It’s perspective,” Tjaden said. We met at a coffee shop in Brentwood. Tjaden lives with his wife and kids in St. Peters. He leaves home most days before his three boys are awake, and if he’s lucky, he gets home by 7. Besides class, he works two jobs — as a law clerk for a private law firm, and he just started working in the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office. “A lot of the kids here haven’t experienced a lot of life yet. I’ve been that person who hasn’t been able to afford an attorney.”

Holden Thorp understands why the perspective of students such as Tjaden matters. Thorp is the provost at Washington U., and one of his priorities over the last couple of years has been to reverse the trend apparent in the new study. While Thorp doesn’t like how Washington U. stands out in the study, he called its results “pivotal.”

That’s because the study confirms what many people in academia had argued for years to be true. “Low-income students achieve very similar outcomes to wealthier students,” Thorp said. “That is something we’ve always believed.”

But now there is evidence tied to more than a decade of tax records. The bottom line is that when elite universities accept lower-income students, they give those students a chance to do something not many people in the U.S. actually can do: improve their economic class.

In the past two years, Washington U. has increased to 13 percent the number of students in its incoming freshman classes who are eligible for Pell Grants. It has also reversed another trend, rising from one of the lowest performing elite schools to No. 1 in the percentage of first-year black students accepted.

Charisse Moore is one of those students.

The 25-year-old from Jennings is the first member of her immediate family — she’s the youngest of six children — to finish college. In December, she graduated with a master’s degree in social work from the Brown School at Washington University.

“When I graduated, I cried,” Moore says. “This was really epic for me.”

Her time at Washington U. makes her believe the school is on the right track in terms of making sure that more people from poorer backgrounds have the life-changing opportunity a degree from an elite university can provide.

“It’s an important paradigm shift,” she says. “I believe they want to change.”

Thorp says it is in the school’s interest to increase the number of students it accepts who need financial aid. The growth in high-performing students — which all elite schools compete to attract — is highest in various populations of students who can’t afford to pay the school’s high tuition costs.

Tjaden’s law degree is being paid for in part by the Veterans Administration under a vocational rehab program. While in Iraq, his ankles were damaged to the point where he could barely walk. At one point, a VA doctor told him he’d spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Several surgeries and painful days at rehab later, Tjaden is walking fine, though he sometimes uses a cane for support.

“I’m happy to be walking around,” he says.

In a year, he expects to be carrying with him a valuable degree from one of the top law schools in the nation. His economic fortunes, and those of his family, will be greatly improved because he had access to an elite school.

“I sure as heck wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else,” Tjaden says of his Washington U. experience. “Seeing these other students makes me think: That’s what I want for my kids.”